“I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And because of that, there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law.” – Bryan Stevenson
For those few who’ve never heard of him, Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard trained lawyer, social justice activist, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a clinical professor of law at New York University School of Law. And in my opinion, an absolutely wonderful man! Someone I regard as being a true Humanitarian and Christian in the purest sense. I hope to someday write a full tribute to him, but today, I only want to reflect on his words captured above.
Anyone who has read my blog posts already knows that I am a woman with a mental illness. I have bipolar disorder. Though not all people afflicted with this awful illness face the same set of drawbacks, some of its symptoms tend to be prevalent in many sufferers. Among the more emblematic ones are irritability (which can range from just foul mood, to outbursts or tirades), hypersexuality (ranging from a mild promiscuity to serial adultery), hyperspending, grandiosity, impulsivity, and to a much lesser degree aggression (towards things, oneself or others). Bipolar disorder is not just depression or high energy elation. There are these negative symptoms, as well as absence of drive, social withdrawal, lack of concentration, and others which often affect the lives around them, in addition to those of the patients. As a consequence, discrimination, prejudice and stigma against people with bipolar disorder are as strong as against people with other serious mental health problems.
So, which other diagnosable mental illnesses often carry the strongest stigma?
- Antisocial Personality Disorder, and to a much lesser degree, other types of personality disorders
- Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders
- Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders (i.e. Pyromania, Kleptomania, Pedophillia, and others)
These disorders may not exhibit any of the negative symptoms I listed above for bipolar disorder, but all have some (or even many) negative, or even very negative, symptoms of psychopathology.
Negative attitudes toward people with mental illness prevail to this day and scores of men and women with the aforementioned disorders are shunned, divorced, hated, punished, abused, jailed, or even killed in the electric chair. Yes, some people with mental illness commit crimes, but neither the judiciary nor society at large are often eager to show mercy to them. It is no coincidence Mr. Stevenson’s memoir (beautifully written I might add) is simply titled “Just Mercy.” Some people, who call themselves religious, will never forgive; while others, who avow justice for all, willingly pervert it when it comes to the mentally ill who break the law. Even though the vast majority of the mentally ill are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, the minority who act in immoral or criminal ways usually do so as a direct result of their psychopathological symptoms.
In the past, particularly before 1955 when the psychiatric deinstitutionalization started in the United States, people with grave mental illness who committed crimes were held in psychiatric institutions. These establishments were definitely far from being desirable places, but they weren’t literally jails or prisons. As the deinstitutionalization progressed over several decades, many of the circa half a million critically ill patients ended up on the street or in prison. Between the woefully underfunded Community Mental Health Act signed by President Kennedy, and the Mental Health Systems Act signed by President Carter, but later repealed under President Reagan, the deinstitutionalization has been a social experiment disaster.
To this day, the crisis continues with far too many people with mental illness incarcerated, one too many in solitary confinement, and some even on death row. Seriously ill patients in need of an in-patient care have to wait months for available space. According to the World Health Organization’s data, there are about 23.5 mental health hospital beds per 100,000 population in the US, which is roughly the same number as in Guyana. For comparison, the numbers are 52.1 in Germany and 82.4 in Czech Republic. As a person with a mental illness, I find this to be extraordinarily sad and unjust. As an American, I find it inexcusable.
Let’s not just give forgiveness to the mentally ill…
Bryan Stevenson certainly thought of the mentally ill when he spoke the words I quoted above, but he also counted those who’ve done wrong because of extreme desperation (abused, hungry, homeless, sick) and those terribly misguided. He said “everyone on the planet”! To me, I interpret that as EVERYONE! I can’t speak for Bryan, but I’d think he even embraces the most heinous criminals that the mind can conjure up. After all, don’t these criminals usually always fall within the categories of desperate, misguided, or mentally ill? When the criminal code calls for imprisonment, which is obviously needed in so many cases, the punishment is meant to be the restraint on a person’s liberty to keep society and their possessions safe. Yes, it is meant to be a form of punishment, too, but there is no need to take away all rights, dignity, love, life. I believe even the worst crooks deserve some degree of compassion and hope, not lethal injection, solitary confinement, or other inhumane acts of savagery. Don’t civilized people believe in compassion anymore?
So few prisons and jails have adequate programs for rehabilitation of people who have committed crimes. We all know that often they are released just to return to their unlawful ways. So many people with mental illnesses and addictions are also inadequately treated. It is a very sad reality that plagues these people.
I do not believe people are born evil or born hating. Really, I don’t even believe in the concept of “evil”, though I am not particularly religious.
As a final note, let us be aware of the many people in jails and prisons that are wrongly accused. Various factors lead to this that need to be improved, just one being the abolishment or atleast reduction in racial predjudice among some police and the justice system. Many also have prison sentences way beyond the severity of the crime. Often drugs are involved. And think of the many children/adolescents who break the law now punished so harshly, as adults. Children and adolescents are not adults!
Recommended reading/interviews on these topics:
“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, by Bryan Stevenson
Charlie Rose’s interviews with Bryan Stevenson and Bryan Stevenson TED Talks available through https://charlierose.com/guests/5864
“Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” by Pete Earley